The impossible start happen I tell you. Water start dream, rock and stone start dream, tree trunk and tree root start dreaming, bird and beast dreaming…Everything Ah tell you dreaming long before the creation I know of begin. Everything turning different.
—Wilson Harris, Palace of the Peacock
Numerically small but culturally significant, Moko Jumbies—the Caribbean’s unique kind of stilt walkers—have a long lineage in Carnival. These magical, towering figures, regarded as ancestral spirits, are a direct manifestation of the African cultural heritage which crossed the Atlantic during the era of slavery. It is a tradition with roots that perhaps go further back than any other cultural form in modern-day Carnival. The oldest written reference is an account by William Young in 1791, which first described the “moco jumbos” in St. Vincent. The retention of this tradition in the region for over 200 years, and its ongoing contemporary evolution, make the Moko Jumbie one of the Caribbean’s most precious cultural treasures.
Moko Sõmõkow, the group of Moko Jumbies shown in this photo essay, is emblematic of the incredible artistic creativity that Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival is renowned for. The magical, mystical presence of the Moko Jumbie is spellbinding. The act of photographing them is an act of witnessing and of sharing, an exploration of the intersection between the art of the image and the art of the embodied practices passed from generation to generation.
Moko Sõmõkow’s story begins with the group’s designer, Alan Vaughan, who has been coming to Trinidad’s Carnival for 20 years. Born in Kenya to English parents, he lived in the UK since his early childhood. Now also part honorary “Trini” by virtue of year-in, year-out dedication to developing his passion for making Moko Jumbie art. The band photoed here is a collaboration between himself, young Moko Jumbie artists from Tarodale in the southern part of Trinidad and Tobago, and two friends, Veynu Siewrattan and Lester Doodnath, who volunteered to help with the organization of the band.
These magical, towering figures, regarded as ancestral spirits, are a direct manifestation of the African cultural heritage which crossed the Atlantic during the era of slavery.
Vaughan coined the name “Moko Sõmõkow”in 2018 after a conversation in which a friend from Mali explained to him that, in the Bambara language, “sõmõkow” is one of the words for family. This is what Vaughan wanted to create: a Moko Jumbie family.
For 2019, Vaughan turned to one of the Caribbean’s great literary works, Palace of the Peacock by revered Guyanese writer Wilson Harris. Harris died in March of 2018 and Vaughan saw his obituary upon returning to the UK after his annual stint in Trinidad for Carnival. He was unaware of Harris before, but was immediately struck by what he read about the author and wasted no time ordering a used copy of Palace of the Peacock. In addition to being attracted by the title, Vaughan was mesmerized by the rich imagery evoked by Harris’s writing. In particular, he was drawn to the strong theme of death and rebirth and the references to ancestral DNA.
Vaughan once said, “You can feel that in the Moko Jumbie, that you’re carrying all that history. The book and the Moko Jumbie married very successfully.” It is also noteworthy that the crew paddling up the river in Harris’s book is cross-cultural, just like the Moko Sõmõkow crew. Vaughan is an African-born Englishman, the King and Queen of the band are of African descent and the bandleader’s ancestry is from India. This is Trinidad and Tobago: very little happens along a straight line.
The impact of the artistry of such a small band on a Carnival landscape dominated by big street party bands speaks volumes. The Queen of the band, named “Mariella, Shadow of Consciousness,” portrayed by Shynel Brizan, was chosen as the national Queen of Carnival, the most prestigious title of individual design and performance in the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. This was the second time that Vaughan designed a winning Moko Jumbie Queen of Carnival; the first was in 2015, which was the first time in the history of the competition that the Queen was a Moko Jumbie. The King of this year’s band, “A Peacock turns into the Windows of the Universe,” portrayed by Tekel Sylvan, placed second in the King of Carnival competition. The icing on Moko Sõmõkow’s cake came when “Palace of the Peacock” won the 2019 Mini Band of the Year title in the annual competition held over Carnival Monday and Tuesday.
These accolades, and the accompanying national attention, come against the backdrop of considerable debate in today’s Trinidad and Tobago, regarding the state of creativity in Carnival in recent decades. Ever-increasing commercialization has stripped the festival of much of its original ethos and splendor; but more and more, people are welcoming the shift that’s occurring. This change is represented by small underdog bands like Moko Sõmõkow, who persist in making their Carnival art despite all the constraints they face.